November 29th, 2006
Myriad / incidences vs. incidents
by Barbara Wallraff
Peter Harman, of Crested Butte, Colo., writes: “I learned that ‘myriad’ should be used as a synonym for ‘many’ (as in ‘there are myriad stars’) and should never be followed by ‘of’ (as in ‘a myriad of stars’). I was told that that situation calls for the word ‘plethora.’ I commonly see what I regard as incorrect usage of ‘myriad’ in reputable publications. Are both usages correct? No matter what the answer, I will never say ‘myriad of,’ because it is too deeply ingrained for me to change now.”
Dear Peter: All sorts of superstitions exist about “myriad,” and I’ve never understood why. Did the person who taught you that “rule” ever explain why the word shouldn’t be followed by “of” -- why it can’t be a noun? “A myriad of stars” isn’t confusing; the usage is well established; and in fact the noun is older than the adjective, though both uses have been with us for centuries.
Patricia T. Leadley, of Lake Pleasant, N.Y., writes: “I often see the word ‘incidences’ where the word ‘incidents’ would be correct. For example, recently I read, ‘It’s a shame to hear about Albany High School and how it is portrayed as a bleak setting with an endless stream of horrible violent incidences.’Please comment.”
Dear Patricia: You’re all too right: “incidence” is being used in all sorts of loopy ways. An “incident” is an event, often an unpleasant one: “a violent incident.” So a series of these events would be “incidents”: “violent incidents.” “Incidence” usually means something like “frequency” or “extent,” as in “The incidence of violence is high.” And “incidences” is the plural of that word, as in “The two schools have comparable incidences of violence.”
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